Belfast Telegraph

View from Dublin: even Remainers now harbour the English dream

By Brendan Keenan

Lucky woman, that Edwina Currie MP. Supposing it had been John FitzGerald or Seamus Coffey or, heaven forfend, Colm McCarthy? One shudders to think.

The occasion was a recent Marian Finucane show, where Mrs Currie extolled the performance of the British economy. Absolutely brilliant, growing like a barmbrack, showing Europe the way.

I suspect most, if not all of the panel knew this was tosh, but they could not be expected to have the figures at their fingertips. Astonishingly, even if they had, they would have been out-of-date.

Last month's UK budget contained the worst long-term economic forecasts anyone can remember. In Britain, an independent body produces the forecasts and the government must apply them; otherwise this display of unadulterated gloom would surely never have seen the light of day.

Instead of the economy growing by 2% a year, as was thought as recently as March, it is now expected to manage just 1.5% this year and 1.4% next. That will be at the bottom of the EU league, with only Italy in the same space; hardly an example to anyone. Remember the small numbers trap; that is a downgrade of 25% on the previous forecasts.

Brexit is not the principal reason for this vista of prolonged stagnation, although the body involved, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), is incorporating reductions in trade after 2019 and fewer new workers coming into the country.

The big issue is productivity. The OBR has been assuming this would return to the pre-crash pattern of 2% a year growth but, after 10 years, it has had to drop the assumption. I think I'm glad to have avoided the excruciating, toe-curling experience if any or all of that had been applied to Mrs Currie's vapourings, but it would appear that toes would have curled in vain. It seems this catalogue of absolute and relative weakness is having little effect on the Brexit debate.

Mrs Currie, as she said, was a Remainer. They campaigned on the basis of the economic damage likely to be done by any serious restrictions on trade with the EU, or inability to provide financial services, or limits on the hiring of foreign staff. They have been traumatised by the disastrous defeat of this approach by the 'Project Fear' jibe in the referendum campaign.

Project Fear was as close to facts as one can ever be about the future, but it was no match for the fake news from the other side - Russians perhaps included - on things like £350m a week for the health service. The UK Budget promised something like £15m a week over the next two years - just about enough to cover the costs of ageing, and out by a factor of 20.

In such circumstances, if Brexit seems impossible to stop, and in the middle of negotiations, it might seem logical to talk up the economy and suggest that Britain's hand is stronger than most observers think, although it is unlikely to influence those who matter. But there may be something deeper going on. There was something in the tone of Mrs Currie's voice - and some others I have heard - which made me think that, even for those who share the intellectual objections to Brexit, there is a certain excitement at the prospect. It is, after all, the English dream. The Irish Jesuit Fr Edmond Grace has produced a paper arguing that England itself, among the UK nations, is constitutionally unable to be a member of the EU. He was using the word in both senses, not just the sovereignty of parliament, but temperament too. He argues that much of it is down to past imperial grandeur and England's creation of the kingdom with the absorption of Wales, Ireland and Scotland (in that order). That makes for unpleasant reading in those nations, with their three different responses, so far, to membership of the UK. But we should not get too sniffy. The German supreme court in effect upheld the superiority of the country's Basic Law over EU law and, because it is Germany, everyone looked the other way. Britain is big enough to have shaped EU membership to better suit its constitution (again in both senses) but dreams got in the way. It chose instead to disengage, and now to leave.

If English dreaming was partly responsible for that rupture, elsewhere it has reignited other dreams of things that never were.

Belfast Telegraph

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